Inspector MORSE

Colin Dexter’s cantankerous, hard drinking police inspector whose beat is the halls of academia in Oxford, England has enjoyed success in print and on TV (played by John Thaw, and even leading to the successful spin-off, The Inspector Lewis Mysteries, wherein his sidekick is promoted and takes centre stage while utilizing the same milieu).

And on BBC Radio  some of the novels have been adapted into at least three feature length plays (some serialized in half-hour or 45 minute instalments). John Shrapnel is superb as the caustic, impatient anti-hero — obviously he’s working with an established, popular personality, but his delivery nicely captures the sense of a hard-to-like character who you do, nonetheless, like. And Robert Glenister is understatedly effective as his long-suffering sergeant, Lewis. And the performances in general are top notch, as is the sense of environment.

Of the three 90 minute productions, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1996) is perhaps the most conventional detective-mystery, investigating an initial murder (of a deaf teacher/professor) and drawing upon the world of academia that’s at the heart of the series. While Last Seen Wearing (1994) has a more atypical hook, involving Morse and Lewis taking on, not a murder, but a missing person cold case that had been a private obsession of a recently deceased detective. Murder does eventually result, but it allows the story to unfold in a slightly different way. Both productions are enjoyable and compelling, with twists and turns, mixing mystery, drama, and wry humour, but I’d argue Last Seen Wearing stands slightly ahead.

The Wench is Dead (1992) is a deliberately atypical tale (funny, given it was the first they adapted). In it Morse is laid up in hospital and, simply for a hobby, begins re-examining a controversial murder case from over a century before. I think the novel itself was the most critically acclaimed of the Morse books, and was, one suspects, meant as an homage to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which was also about a hospitalized detective playing arm chair detective with a historical mystery — though in that case, using real history (there‘s an effective reading of it by Paul Young produced for BBC Radio, and I think there may be a version read by Derek Jacobi). The Morse story is almost two tales — one is more a character drama of Morse laid up in hospital, and the other is the mystery (with flashback scenes). I enjoyed it more a second time through, buoyed by Shrapnel’s compelling performance, but didn’t find the mystery as twisty as in the other stories. So, still decent — but probably the lesser of the three plays.

But overall, the Morse radio dramatizations are top drawer.

The Gibson

6 half-hour episode BBC Radio SF/thriller by Bruce Bedford from 1992 about a family man in the town of Bath who gets embroiled in an ancient conspiracy involving two factions — one good, one evil — and an evil power buried beneath the town.

An enjoyable enough story, albeit where a lot of it can feel a bit like a coat of paint thrown over an old house to disguise how generic it all is. Although a thriller, with danger and death, it’s actually funny at times — which though a nice touch, equally can diffuse tension too much, almost coming across as too light-hearted. And it does have some quirky ideas. But, as I say, the foundations are kind of generic — and vaguely so. The “evil power” beneath the town is never really quantified or explained, nor the motives of the cult seeking to unearth it.

The story is deliberately made weird by jumping about in time periods. The main plot takes place in modern times, but we keep cutting back to a scribe in the Middle Ages who is actually writing out a chronicle of what will happen in modern times…while the story is introduced by a voiceover from somewhere in the distant future — all very weird and intriguing. Except, um, I’m not sure it’s ever really explained how or why (unless I drifted off for a few minutes). Weird and quirky is good — but weird and quirky simply for the sake of seeming weird and quirky at the expense of logic, not so much. It’s a bit as if the writer was charged with writing a generic SF thriller (perhaps to commemorate the city of Bath since the story takes place during a city celebration!) so tried to give it a more sophisticated sheen (and some wit)…without actually beefing up the substance. Even the characters never quite become more than likeable but vague characters.

So as I say, it’s an enjoyable enough story but, strangely, when it’s done it can still feel like what it was obviously trying not to seem like — a fairly generic version of an old cults-and-ancient-evil story. It stars Robert Glenister, Freddie Jones and others.